The Fascinating Story of the Golan Heights
It is very rare that I visit a site in this tiny country that I have never visited before, but yesterday I had the awesome privilege of overlooking the Valley of Quneitra into Syria from Mount Bental. From there you can see the border with Syria and nothing can highlight the differences between the two countries like the fact that on the Israeli side, everything is green and plush and on the Syrian, it appears to be a barren wasteland.
On Top of Mount Bental in the Golan Heeghts
Mount Bental was the location of one of the biggest tank battles in history—during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The Quneitra (pronounced koo-net-tra) Valley is called the valley of tears, because of massive loss of life that took place there.
The Golan Heights is an immense, hilly plateau in Northern Israel. It borders Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. Its average height is about 3,500 feet. Its highest point on the northern border of Mount Hermon tops at 9,000 feet.
(See our pictures from a day on the Golan Heights here)
Syria Terrorizes Israel from the Highlands
When Syria controlled this region, she used the highland to reign terror on Israel’s Galilee villages and farms with rockets and bombs, and PLO raids were launched against Israel from Syrian territory. Syria’s attacks grew more frequent in ‘65 and ‘66. Often Israeli children would have to sleep in bomb shelters. A final attack was unleashed against defenseless Israeli towns in April 1967. Israel responded by shooting down six Syrian MiG fighter jets and issued a stern warning.
In addition, Syria was seeking to divert water from entering the Sea of Galilee—Israel’s main supply of drinking water. A country can’t last long without water. This, in and of itself, was an act of war.
Having had enough, Israel defended herself in the Six Day War, fighting—literally—an uphill battle. Israeli tanks stormed the Golan Heights and fought a bloody, intense battle. Israeli causalities reached 115 in just a few days, while Syrian casualties were 20 times that at 2,500. In the end, Israel now controlled the highlands.
Peace Rejected by Syria
It is important to note, that just a few days later, on June 19th, 1967, the Prime Minister and his cabinet voted to return the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for a peace treaty with Syria. Disgraced, Syria would not be further humiliated and rejected the olive branch.
Attacked while Fasting
In 1973, as the entire country of Israel was fasting for Yom Kippur, a humiliated Arab world (from the Six Day War defeat) led by Egypt and Syria attacked Israel. The surprise attack caught Israel off-guard. My wife remembers her brother being called out of the synagogue to report for duty, along with tens of thousands of soldiers and reservists.
However, initial gains by Syria proved to be fleeting. Once the reserves were organized, they launched a counter offensive regaining all the territory. In fact, by the end of the short war, Israeli shells were reaching the outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus. Israeli troops extended their reach 20 kilometers into Syria!
A Sort of Peace Agreement Follows
Several attempts from Syria to retake this land were rebuffed by Israel. Finally in May 1974, Israel and Syria signed a Separation of Forces agreement. Israel retreated to the Golan Heights and Syria re-occupied areas lost in the Yom Kippur war. Again, just to be clear, Israel did not relinquish the Golan Heights, just the areas gained in 1973. There would be a demilitarized zone in between the two countries that would be occupied by UN Peacekeepers, the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force.
After 40 Years, Peacekeepers Run
This is the view from atop Mount Bental. Israel is the green area, and beyond that is Syria. The city at the top of the picture is New Quneitra.
Amazingly this has been Israel’s quietest border until the recent Syrian Civil War. Recently Austria pulled its 377 troops (out of 911) from the mission, after Syrian rebels briefly overtook the border crossing at Quneitra. This is not the first time a UN Peacekeeping mission abandoned its post on Israel’s border. Leading up to the Six Day War, President Nasser of Egypt ordered the UN, what was then considered to be their great peacekeeping mission, to leave the Sinai Peninsula, where they served as a buffer between Israel and Egypt. And without a word of dissent, they left.
From my vantage point yesterday, high on Mount Bental I could see the UN outpost where rebel forces kidnapped 21 unarmed UN Filipino peacekeepers. I could also see smoke billowing out of New Quneitra—and could not determine if it was the result of a rocket or some Arab burning trash. New Quneitra has been the scene of several bloody battles in recent months.
Syria abandoned Old Quneitra after Israel retuned the land in May 1974 and simply built a new city close by. Old Quneitra now serves as a reminder that Israel, while desiring peace with her neighbors, is willing to defend ourselves against attack.
(Photos by Jen Sladkov of Maoz Media)